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More Bear than Eagle: Russia Taking Advantage of an American Vacuum

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It is evident that the US cannot fight DAESH as if there is no complex war raging in Syria. Considering the conditions on the ground, the US administration must address not only how to degrade and destroy DAESH, but how US policy can help restore stability across the Syrian state.

It must do both by being diplomatically active in engaging all major actors in play in the region. For America, Russia and Iran cannot be allowed to set diplomatic precedence in Syria and Iraq and be the leaders. The United States must formulate integrated strategy that would involve Washington in any major diplomatic discussions regarding potential political solutions. So far this is not the case. This new approach will require expanded engagement with the Syrian players, both domestic and foreign, in order to improve possibilities for change.

Without inclusion of the Russian side, it will be more likely to undermine Western plans and potentially drag America into protracted and chaotic proxy war. Once it was clear that Syrian leader Assad would not step down easily, US policy did not adapt nor did policymakers create a viable alternative strategy to achieve its goals. It is apparent that Syria is becoming a geopolitical Chernobyl, spreading violence and fanaticism across the region. Once DAESH is eliminated any new strategy must aim to achieve an immediate drop in violence by coordinating a ceasefire across all sides. The difficulty is going to be determining the political price for the elimination of DAESH.

American political and military lethargy in Syria should be viewed as a result of having no compelling strategy that could push for deeper effective involvement. This must no longer be the case, as the US must work towards curbing further spillover of the Syrian crisis, which has brought refugee mayhem to Europe. Now US allies in Europe must contend with the massive potential threat emerging. The United States and European Union should use a combination of assertive military initiatives and broad diplomatic approaches to establish communication with all major regional actors. The United States must pressure Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey to halt financial and weapons assistance to their groups of choice within Iraq and Syria. Both the EU and US can use an integrated strategy that includes arms embargos, economic sanctions and rewards, and airstrikes.    

Keeping Russian pride in mind, cooperation is possible by working parallel, coordinated air strikes and other operations for maximum effect against DAESH. In April, Foreign Minister Lavrov called it “the main threat” to Russia today. Jihadists who live in Russia’s North Caucasus have switched their allegiance to DAESH and declared their regions as part of the DAESH provincial network. Russia is worried that the Syrian Assad regime could be replaced by a worse Islamic extremist force. The collapse of governments in Libya and Iraq is used by Russia to affirm such concerns. The United States should use this shared fear to motivate Russia and the EU to work together with it. This is an opportunity for America to develop a new diplomatic path and establish new beneficial connections to Russia and come out as a cohesive positive influence. But so far this has frustratingly not happened.

Former deputy director of the CIA Michael Morell said that any strategy should probably include working with Syrian President Bashar Assad and Russia. The reason for this approach is that proxy war with Russia will not help America and it will not decimate terrorist groups that are more important in the immediate-term. The priority for all involved sides right now must be the absolute destruction of DAESH and its allies. DAESH has clearly achieved capacity to strike the EU and it has the same plans for the United States. The question whether President Assad needs to go can be tackled in a post-DAESH world.

The fight against radical Islam is something that the EU, Russia, and even China support. There is a potential to use this international sentiment to start working on new diplomatic relationships. While some countries can help militarily, many more can help financially by providing supplies or impeding DAESH financial networks. After multiple brutal terror attacks in France and now Brussels, the EU is out of time and must act as soon as possible on new ideas. Meanwhile, the United States must stop appearing hamstrung by the continued lack of valid partners on the ground in Syria, whether diplomatically or militarily. Too much time and resources are wasted and it is only adding to the image of the US being indecisive and even impotent.

Continued diplomatic dialogue should present realistic and achievable goals that many countries find attractive. At the moment most countries want DAESH to be eliminated. But the United States should not allow Russia to continue to lead the way in military and diplomatic action. It should be a primary part of all regional high level negotiations, which at the moment it is not. The current rigid and recalcitrant American strategy should be abandoned. The Middle East must understand that America will be the part of any solution no matter what. That is something Iran should be reminded of due to its recent political and military assertions.

At the moment, the EU lacks cohesive leadership that can mandate decisions and act in a timely manner. Sometimes it can take the EU a very long time to agree on something urgent. Following the recent attacks in Paris and Brussels, it remains to be seen if NATO can react according to its accord of mutual protection. If it doesn’t, then some of America’s prime European partners might start looking more toward Russia as a strategic partner. For example, British Prime Minister David is open to offering compromises on the future of Syrian President Assad in return for Russian help targeting DAESH. French President Hollande will travel to Washington and Moscow to discuss ways of increasing international cooperation in the fight against DAESH, not just Washington. The United States must act to avoid losing leadership position to Russia in this fight against terrorism. Putin is more than willing to exploit the void left by Washington in Syria and Iraq. Both France and the UK cannot single-handedly defeat domestic or international terrorist threats. They are now painfully aware that they both need foreign assistance in this desperate struggle. So what remains to be seen is who is going to step up to that desperate need in REAL terms: America or Russia? Disturbingly, so far in real terms the answer seems to be more bear than eagle.

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Middle East

Erdogan’s Calamitous Authoritarianism

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Turkey’s President Erdogan is becoming ever more dangerous as he continues to ravage his own country and destabilize scores of states in the Middle East, the Balkans, and North Africa, while cozying up to the West’s foremost advisories. Sadly, there seems to be no appetite for most EU member states to challenge Erdogan and put him on notice that he can no longer pursue his authoritarianism at home and his adventurous meddling abroad with impunity.

To understand the severity of Erdogan’s actions and ambitions and their dire implications, it suffices to quote Ahmet Davutoglu, formerly one of Erdogan’s closest associates who served as Minister of Foreign Affairs and subsequently Prime Minister. Following his forced resignation in May 2016 he stated “I will sustain my faithful relationship with our president until my last breath. No one has ever heard — and will ever hear — a single word against our president come from my mouth.”

Yet on October 12, Davutoglu declared “Erdogan left his friends who struggled and fought with him in exchange for the symbols of ancient Turkey, and he is trying to hold us back now…. You yourself [Erdogan] are the calamity. The biggest calamity that befell this people is the regime that turned the country into a disastrous family business.”

The stunning departure of Davutoglu from his earlier statement shows how desperate conditions have become, and echoed how far and how dangerously Erdogan has gone. Erdogan has inflicted a great calamity on his own people, and his blind ambition outside Turkey is destabilizing many countries while dangerously undermining Turkey’s and its Western allies’ national security and strategic interests.

A brief synopsis of Erdogan’s criminal domestic practices and his foreign misadventures tell the whole story.

Domestically, he incarcerated tens of thousands of innocent citizens on bogus charges, including hundreds of journalists. Meanwhile he is pressuring the courts to send people to prison for insulting him, as no one can even express their thoughts about this ruthlessness. Internationally, Erdogan ordered Turkish intelligence operatives to kill or smuggle back to the country Turkish citizens affiliated with the Gülen movement.

He regularly cracks down on Turkey’s Kurdish minority, preventing them from living a normal life in accordance with their culture, language, and traditions, even though they have been and continue to be loyal Turkish citizens. There is no solution to the conflict except political, as former Foreign Minister Ali Babacan adamantly stated on October 20: “… a solution [to the Kurdish issue] will be political and we will defend democracy persistently.”

Erdogan refuses to accept the law of the sea convention that gives countries, including Cyprus, the right to an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) for energy exploration, while threatening the use of force against Greece, another NATO member no less. He openly sent a research ship to the region for oil and gas deposits, which EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called “extremely worrying.”

He invaded Syria with Trump’s blessing to prevent the Syrian Kurds from establishing autonomous rule, under the pretext of fighting the PKK and the YPG (the Syrian Kurdish militia that fought side-by-side the US, and whom Erdogan falsely accuses of being a terrorist group).

He is sending weapons to the Sunni in northern Lebanon while setting up a branch of the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) in the country—a practice Erdogan has used often to gain a broader foothold in countries where it has an interest.

While the Turkish economy is in tatters, he is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the Balkans, flooding countries with Turkish imams to spread his Islamic gospel and to ensure their place in his neo-Ottoman orbit. Criticizing Erdogan’s economic leadership, Babacan put it succinctly when he said this month that “It is not possible in Turkey for the economic or financial system to continue, or political legitimacy hold up.”

Erdogan is corrupt to the bone. He conveniently appointed his son-in-law as Finance Minister, which allows him to hoard tens of millions of dollars, as Davutoglu slyly pointed out: “The only accusation against me…is the transfer of land to an educational institution over which I have no personal rights and which I cannot leave to my daughter, my son, my son-in-law or my daughter-in-law.”

Erdogan is backing Azerbaijan in its dispute with Armenia (backed by Iran) over the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is inhabited by ethnic Armenians and has been the subject of dispute for over 30 years.

He is exploiting Libya’s civil strife by providing the Government of National Accord (GNA) with drones and military equipment to help Tripoli gain the upper hand in its battle against Khalifa Haftar’s forces. Former Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis said in February 2020 that “The unclear Turkish foreign policy by Erdogan may put Turkey in grave danger due to this expansion towards Libya.”

He is meddling in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an effort to prevent them from settling their dispute unless Israel meets Palestinian demands. He granted several Hamas officials Turkish citizenship to spite Israel, even though Hamas openly calls for Israel’s destruction.

He betrayed NATO by buying the Russian-made S-400 air defense system, which seriously compromises the alliance’s technology and intelligence.

He is destabilizing many countries, including Somalia, Qatar, Libya, and Syria, by dispatching military forces and hardware while violating the air space of other countries like Iraq, Cyprus, and Greece. Yakis said Turkey is engaging in a “highly daring bet where the risks of failure are enormous.”

Erdogan supports extremist Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and an assortment of jihadists, including ISIS, knowing full well that these groups are sworn enemies of the West—yet he uses them as a tool to promote his wicked Islamic agenda.

He regularly blackmails EU members, threatening to flood Europe with Syria refugees unless they support his foreign escapades such as his invasion of Syria, and provide him with billions in financial aid to cope with the Syrian refugees.

The question is how much more evidence does the EU need to act? A close look at Erdogan’s conduct clearly illuminates his ultimate ambition to restore much of the Ottoman Empire’s influence over the countries that were once under its control.

Erdogan is dangerous. He has cited Hitler as an example of an effective executive presidential system, and may seek to acquire nuclear weapons. It’s time for the EU to wake up and take Erdogan’s long-term agenda seriously, and take severe punitive measures to arrest his potentially calamitous behavior. Sadly, the EU has convinced itself that from a geostrategic perspective Turkey is critically important, which Erdogan is masterfully exploiting.

The EU must be prepared take a stand against Erdogan, with or without the US. Let’s hope, though, that Joe Biden will be the next president and together with the EU warn Erdogan that his days of authoritarianism and foreign adventurism are over.

The views expressed are those of the author.

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Middle East

Syrian Refugees Have Become A Tool Of Duplicitous Politics

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Syrian refugees in Rukban camp

Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria the issue of Syrian refugees and internally displace has been the subject of countless articles and reports with international humanitarian organizations and countries involved in the Syrian conflict shifting responsibility for the plight of migrants.

The most notorious example of human suffering put against political games is the Rukban refugee camp located in eastern Syria inside the 55-km zone around Al-Tanf base controlled by the U.S. and its proxies.

According to official information, more than 50,000 people, mostly women and children, currently live in the camp. This is a huge number comparable to the population of a small town. The Syrian government, aware of the plight of people in Rukban, has repeatedly urged Washington to open a humanitarian corridor so that everyone can safely return home. However, all such proposals were ignored by the American side. U.S. also refuse to provide the camp with first aid items. Neighbouring Jordan is inactive, too, despite Rukban being the largest of dozens other temporary detention centres in Syria, where people eke out a meager existence.

At the same time, the problem is not only refugee camps. Syria has been at war for a decade. The country’s economy has suffered greatly over this period, and many cities have been practically grazed to the ground. Moreover, the global coronavirus epidemic didn’t spare Syria and drained the already weakened economy even more. However, Damascus’ attempts of post-war reconstruction and economic recovery were undermined by multiple packages of severe sanctions imposed by the U.S. At the same time, U.S.-based human rights monitors and humanitarian organizations continue to weep over the Syrian citizens’ misery.

The situation is the same for those refugees who stay in camps abroad, especially in countries bordering on Syria, particularly Jordan and Turkey. Ankara has been using Syrian citizens as a leverage against the European states in pursuit of political benefits for a long time. No one pays attention to the lives of people who are used as a change coin in big politics. This is equally true for Rukban where refugees are held in inhuman conditions and not allowed to return to their homeland. In those rare exceptions that they are able to leave, refugees have to pay large sums of money that most of those living in camp are not able to come by.

It’s hard to predict how long the Syrian conflict will go on and when – or if – the American military will leave the Al-Tanf base. One thing can be said for sure: the kind of criminal inaction and disregard for humanitarian catastrophe witnessed in refugee camps is a humiliating failure of modern diplomacy and an unforgivable mistake for the international community. People shouldn’t be a tool in the games of politicians.

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Middle East

Is Syria Ready For Second Wave Of COVID-19?

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©UNICEF/Delil Souleiman

Despite a relative calm that has been holding on the front lines of the Syrian conflict since the beginning of the year, Syria had to face other equally – if not more – serious challenges. The spread of COVID-19 virus in the wake of a general economic collapse and a health care system battered by nine years of war threatened Syria with a death toll as a high as that of resumed military confrontation. However, the actual scale of the infection rate turned out to be less than it was expected considering the circumstances.

Although Syria did not have much in resources to mobilize, unlike some other countries that were slow to enforce restrictions or ignored them altogether, the Syrian authorities did not waste time to introduce basic measures that, as it became obvious in hindsight, proved to be the most effective. A quarantine was instituted in the areas controlled by the government, all transportation between the provinces was suspended, schools and universities were temporarily closed and face masks were made obligatory in public spaces.

As a result, official data puts the number of people infected with COVID-19 in the government areas at modest 4,457 while 192 people died of the infection. In turn, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria announced that 1,998 people contracted the virus. The data on the infection rate in the opposition-controlled areas in Idlib and Aleppo is incomplete, but the latest number is 1,072. Compared to the neighboring Turkey with  9,000 of deaths of COVID-19, Syria seems to be doing relatively well.

Tackling the virus put the already embattled health care system under enormous strain. Syrian doctors are dealing with an acute shortage of medicines and equipment, and even hospital beds are in short supply. Over 60 medical workers who treated COVID-19 patients died.

The situation is worsened even further by the economic hardships, not least due to the sanctions imposed on Syria by the U.S. and the European states. Syrian hospitals are unable to procure modern equipment necessary for adequate treatment of COVID-19, most importantly test kits and ventilators.

The economic collapse exposed and aggravated many vulnerabilities that could have been easily treated under more favorable circumstances. A grim, yet fitting example: long queues in front of bakeries selling bread at subsidised prices, that put people under the risk of catching the virus. Many Syrians are simply unable to avoid risking their health in these queues, as an average income is no longer enough to provide for a family.

Moreover, despite a nation-wide information campaign conducted with the goal of spreading awareness about means of protections against COVID-19 like social distancing and mask-wearing, for many Syrians the disease is still stigmatized, and those who contracted it are often too ashamed to go to a hospital or even confess to their friends. As consequence, a substantial number of cases goes unreported.

With the second wave of COVID-19 in sight, it is of utmost importance that the work of health care professionals is supported, not subverted by the citizens. Otherwise Syria – and the world – may pay too high a price.

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